Medieval documents from the Cairo Genizah are now on display in an exhibit at the Cambridge University Library called “Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo.” Many of the texts, which reveal the colorful social histories of medieval Jewish life in Old Cairo, at the center of an Islamic empire, will be on view for the first time—most of them have been translated into English for the first time.
The Cairo Genizah, which contained around 200,000 documents and was housed in Old Cairo’s 11th-century Ben Ezra synagogue, was brought to the attention of Western scholars by Scottish twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson at the end of the 19th century. They alerted soon-to-be famed American Conservative Rabbi Solomon Schechter, who rushed to Cairo to ensure that Cambridge University, where he taught Talmudic studies, would beat rival Oxford in the race for ownership of the documents. Now, Cambridge will be giving the public the opportunity to examine—for free—some of the treasures found in the Genizah.
Although Lewis and Gibson were more interested in biblical history than social history, the exhibit’s co-curator Benjamin Outhwaite told The Guardian he hopes to showcase how the archive constitutes a rich tapestry of medieval Jewish life. “We’ve gone for the documents that draw out these human stories,” he said.
The Genizah was home to the textual remnants of nearly a millennium of Jewish life in Cairo, and so its range was just as vast: it contained everything from divorce documents to children’s doodles to rabbinic responsa. To-do lists and bills of sale sit alongside books and parchment of magic spells (Guys, want to seduce a woman? Try this foolproof magical mating tactic: running around her room naked with trousers on your head.) There are tales of romance and scandal: a Jewish woman falls in love with a Christian man; a man gives up a life of debauchery for the woman he loves; a woman threatens a hunger strike against her husband; a wealthy adulterous woman is excommunicated.
The Genizah is also the subject of a book called Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, by Peter Cole and Adina Hoffman, published by Nextbook Press. Cole and Hoffman discussed the book with Sara Ivry in an episode of Vox Tablet.
Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo is open through October 28.